I already knew I was getting a swingset for my sixth birthday—it would be impossible to hide a large box from a snoopy child, or surprise me with it erected in the backyard where I constantly tripped around, wrestling the dogs or plucking honeysuckle blooms to sip with my neighbor Colleen, our always-bare feet hard as hide. So my father invited me to help install it.
I considered his time with me a gift in itself.
I churned at a bucket of cement with skinny wrists as I watched him dig four deep, perfect circles into the grass with a post-drill. He filled each hole from the bucket I could barely lift, then hoisted the entire clanging gym set assembly above his 6-3 frame in one smooth motion and settled each leg into its home to dry, tightening screws and ensuring the angles.
Handyman, hunter, homicide detective. Was there anything my Daddy couldn’t do?
Actually, to call it a “swingset” was an insult to that sparkling edifice of entertainment. Over the years it became so much more—babysitter, princess castle, reading nook, pouting place, “home base” for countless games of hide and seek. The patches of worn turf beneath it didn’t grow back until I was in high school.
It was also massive, like an elephant suddenly appeared in the yard. I didn’t understand my father’s bipolar disorder then, but if I benefited, so be it. When I asked for a swingset, I expected the standard lineup of a plastic swing, a teeter-totter and midget metal slide that would burn your backside in the summer.
Instead, Daddy backed the truck into the driveway that weekend bearing the Aston Martin of jungle gyms. Once completed, its steel frame arched beyond our roof eaves, with glossy red and blue stripes spiraling around poles that extended from a spine of monkey bars I would race across, hand over hand, back and forth, or stop and dangle from for minutes at a time just because I could.
From each end, sturdy silver bars extended in bright T’s, supporting swings, a trapeze, a thick, knotted rope, and a set of black rubber rings on chains. Flinging my way from one station to another, I grew thick calluses across my palms that would eventually crack and tear off, leaving raw pink divots. But I didn’t care—I raced to the gym set every day after school, wheeling, swinging, twisting, spinning, because it simply felt so good to move, to be dizzy and dirty and alive. Life was easy. Then.
On his good days, Daddy would join me on the gym, doing pull-ups from the monkey bars or pushing me on the swings as our Lab rabble leaped over my ankles. I ate his attention; I never knew when the next dark days, the tears, the whiskey, were coming.
I loved showing off my rings skills. These were my favorite piece of equipment, as I fancied myself an Olympian someday; gymnastics were the only sport for girls my age then. I would lock my arms and hold my sweaty legs outstretched, then whip them under and up again, the momentum whirling me into a flip, sticking the landing on an old dog bed as Daddy whooped his approval.
I felt so strong and sure, with kinesthesis so reliable, I was stunned the day I lost control rolling through space and crashed into a nearby stump. The bark ripped my shin to the bone, the torrent of blood so orange and fierce it didn’t look real. It hurt, but I didn’t cry; I was too embarrassed. Worry–an unfamiliar emotion–quietly nagged me: What did I do wrong? What if I fell again? as Daddy wrapped a beach towel around my leg, set me in the truck, and rumbled us off to the emergency room.
My mother had to lie down when she saw me, but Daddy wasn’t fazed at all. In fact he seemed excited. An adventure! He chattered away, punched at the radio buttons, cracked jokes, and even stopped at 7-11 for Slurpees along the way. He assured me I would be back on the gym set that very day.
By the time the nurse called us back I was almost looking forward to getting stitches. Daddy distracted me with armpit farts and teased the still-pimply intern assigned to my care. Did he have a girlfriend? This gal here’s available! What time was he off work? Watching the nervous young doctor clean my leg, Daddy went for the superfecta, explaining how those little bits of raw pink flesh, flicked onto the blue paper sheet, resembled the evidence he’d recently found in a car trunk that had transported a murder victim’s battered body.
The doctor raised an eyebrow. I smiled. I was nine. And I was fascinated.
What I didn’t see was the toll such work extracted from my father’s soul. I thought he had the most exciting job in the world, and that he shared it with me because he saw me as mature, a peer. But really, I was the only friend he had who wouldn’t judge his moods, or punish his worsening drinking bouts. When he looked into my eyes, his reflection was still that of hero.
When drinking finally did take him a few years later, the gym set lost its allure. Not because I was sad, although I was, but I was 13 now. I’d rather go to the mall than swing on dirty metal bars. I liked wearing makeup and having soft palms to couple-skate with, not that it happened often.
Eventually the gym’s rusted husk collapsed, and my mother had it hauled away to the junkyard. I grew up and learned that life had mortgages and migraines, consequences, shitty people, and too often, the very worries and depression my own father had experienced. And I didn’t have him any more to dissuade them with Slurpees and jokes.
But I had our memories. I never became a gymnast but I did play sports all the way through college, which helped me find work that I loved. And it all began doing ring routines for my father on that gym, where I learned to stick the landing, even when he could not.
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